Clearnote Campus Fellowship just finished up a semester-long Bible study on prayer. In preparing to teach that series, several people I respect recommended that I read A Praying Life by Paul Miller (NavPress, 2009; 279 pages), so I was excited to get to it.
A Praying Life is Miller’s call to Christians to begin the work of praying. His goal is to get his readers to view God as a good and loving Father, and to boost their confidence in coming to God with their spiritual and physical needs. It’s an easy read with short chapters and an accessible style. It’s not exactly “devotional” literature, but it is geared towards drawing its readers into prayer, and Miller predominantly communicates through anecdote and personal experience. Here’s a brief overview of what to expect:
Miller does a good job working against the tendency towards seeking an emotional experience in prayer. Here’s my favorite quote from the whole book:
Learning to pray is almost identical to maturing over a lifetime. What does it feel like to grow up? It is a thousand feelings on a thousand different days. That is what learning to pray feels like.
So don’t hunt for a feeling in prayer. Deep in our psyches we want an experience with God or an experience in prayer. Once we make that our quest, we lose God. You don’t experience God; you get to know Him. You submit to Him. You enjoy Him. (21)
Prayer and Suffering
You get the impression that Miller is a man who’s truly suffered and understands the centrality of pain in the Christian life. The more we suffer, the more we’re forced to despair of ourselves and cry out to God. Miller does a good job here.
In chapter 27, Miller lays out a helpful system of using prayer cards which help to discipline our prayer life and also look for answers to our prayers. It’s so rare that we look for answers, and Miller does a good job pointing out that this springs from a lack of faith, and encouraging the reader to start keeping track of God’s responses to prayers.
Miller stumbles into creating a systemic false dichotomy between discipline and true prayer: “You don’t need self-discipline to pray continuously; you just need to be poor in spirit” (65).
Despite having set true praying over and against discipline throughout, Miller ends up coming around at the bitter end to giving very practical disciplinary helps for managing and being faithful in prayer. I’m convinced Miller unwittingly makes these false dichotomies.
This book carries the flavor of Passive Sanctification. That is, a view of sanctification which says if you’re trying to be righteous, you need to stop it, because you’re being a legalist.
When you stop trying to control your life and instead allow your anxieties and problems to bring you to God in prayer, you shift from worry to watching.
Yeah. No. I’m not buying it. Self-control is a fruit of the Spirit, and we shouldn’t passively “allow” our anxieties and problems to do anything to us. We should actively respond to them by turning to God in faith. Subtleties like these make all the difference in how we approach God and live the Christian life.
Miller regularly describes God as “undemanding”; He just “longs to be a part of your life” (51). And Miller seems to think the most important things for the reader to understand about Jesus are that He is “simple,” “subtle,” “poetic,” and “authentic.”
But what about what the Bible actually says about Jesus? It’s hard to imagine the Jesus that Miller presents being “revealed from heaven with His mighty angels in flaming fire, dealing out retribution to those who do not know God and to those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus” (2 Thessalonians 1:7–8).
Authenticity the Highest Virtue?
Miller impresses upon you that the crowning achievement of godliness in your life is to be “authentic,” and he later ascribes this super-virtue to Jesus:
The presence of Jesus, the only truly authentic person who ever lived, would reveal itself in the restoration of authenticity in people. (97)
But why is Jesus the “only truly authentic person who ever lived”? And what does that even mean anyways? Whatever happened to holiness? Godliness? Purity? Obedience? Power? Love?
Miller’s writing suffers from quite a number of bad practices which make a portion of nearly every page cringeworthy. Many places in this book have all the appearance of profundity, but very little actual meaning.
Example: “You don’t create intimacy; you make room for it” (47).
Um, what does that mean again?
There are also a number of superlatives in the book that are just plain silly.
Example 1: “Augustine’s Confessions…describes the interior journey of the soul. It was the first true journal. Augustine was the first person to recognize the inner workings of his heart and write about the meaning he saw laced through his life.” (249)
Example 2: “Few have grappled more with suffering than Abraham Lincoln.” (215)
Really? Augustine wrote the first journal? Honest Abe suffered more than almost anyone?
I don’t think Miller probably believes what he writes in these places—it’s just shallow thinking and bad writing, and it doesn’t make me trust him as an author.
I’m also not sure why Miller chooses some of the sources he does, except to appear well-studied, maybe. He quotes some Greek Orthodox guy, when a quote from Jesus would have been far superior (25); he throws in a mystical-sounding quote from Thomas Merton, a Trappist monk (55); and he quotes N. T. Wright—making sure to inform the reader that he’s a “respected scholar”—saying something utterly mundane (104).
Watch out for this stuff. It’s never good when an author’s trying to impress you with his connections and sources. Don’t be flattered.
Would I Recommend This Book?
In the end, my overall impression was bad, and I would be very reluctant to recommend it. I do appreciate the practical help near the end, and it’s got wise nuggets throughout, but I don’t think they redeem the whole book. And there are enough pitfalls to say, No, I think you should spend your time on something more edifying. Here are some suggestions:
- The Book of Psalms
- A Call to Prayer by J. C. Ryle
- Prayer by John Bunyan
- The Lord’s Prayer by Thomas Watson
- Spurgeon’s Sermons on Prayer
- Spurgeon’s Treasury of David
- A Call to Spiritual Reformation by D. A. Carson.
All good alternatives.